Sierra Leone

UNMEER assists a densely populated Freetown community to fend off Ebola

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With a megaphone in hand and sweating under the scorching Saturday afternoon sun, Saidu Bah meanders his way through the busy Hagan Street market, in Magazine Cut, Freetown, Sierra Leone, saying, “Wash your hands. Let’s end Ebola. Wash your hands.”

Mr. Bah’s message resonates with people in this community where there were Ebola cases just last February. Then, amidst fears that the virus could spread fast and furious among this dense population, authorities quarantined nine households.

“We have been able to put Ebola under control, but we are not taking chances. We have to constantly remind people to do the right thing to stop Ebola,” says Bah, who heads the community-based organization, Mill Street Elders and Youth Development.

Bah wants community inhabitants to wash hands in the buckets of water and soaps that are placed in various locations within the community.

With funding from the United Nations Mission for Ebola Emergency Response (UNMEER) and support from Cap Anamur, a German medical Non-Government Organization, Bah’s organization is able to carry out sensitization activities as well as disinfect 10 public toilets.

In fact, Bah ascribes the apparently successful battle against Ebola in the community to these efforts. “I tell you, without disinfecting the toilets, Ebola could have very badly affected our community.” The 10 toilets have about 90 rooms in total and each is disinfected three times daily.

Under its Quick Impact Projects, UNMEER funds small projects that can have immediate strategic impact on Ebola response. According to Bintou Keita, UNMEER’s Sierra Leone Ebola Crisis Manager, “We are able to fill critical gaps through the Quick Impact projects funded by the Multi Partner Trust Fund.”

For example, as soon as Ebola cases were detected in Hagan Street, Cap Anamur, which operates a care centre for street and abandoned children in the community, immediately contacted UNMEER to assist with funds for disinfection materials and incentives for two months for 20 persons.

There were fears that, unless frequently disinfected, people could contract Ebola through public toilets. “UNMEER helped us so quickly that we could execute the project [to disinfect the toilets]. It was really a quick response,” says Ole Hengelbrock, Sierra Leone’s Cap Anamur Director.

It took the interventions of three different organizations (UNMEER, MSF and Cap Anamur, the German NGO) to successfully commence the decontamination implementation project, underscoring a lack of human and financial capacity of local NGOs.

Most local NGOs are unable to pre-financing projects, which is sometimes required, and their small size discourage many funding agencies from any engagement. “The local NGO didn’t even realize they could do it until UNMEER offered to help,” says Anahit Sadoyan, UNMEER’s Field Crisis Manager for Western Area, including Freetown, which highlights the flexibility of UNMEER’s QIP.

Even then, UNMEER channeled its funds for this project through the more established Cap Anamur while MSF provided training. There have been spinoffs for such a partnership. “We have now been able to develop local capacity through training, provision of necessary materials and equipment and start-up money,” says Ms. Sadoyan.

“We reviewed the situation and thought UNMEER’s intervention would be critical in not only helping stop Ebola from spreading, but also in empowering the community to take ownership of their facilities,” says Ms. Sadoyan.

The project itself has four main components, including toilet disinfection, training 20 community inhabitants, promoting a hand-washing campaign and ensuring community ownership. The charity, Médecins Sans Frontières, has supported the training component.

“We are gradually achieving our objectives,” notes Ms. Sadoyan. The toilets are constantly cleaned, 20 people including three Ebola survivors have been trained on disinfection, the hand-washing campaign is ongoing and the community is currently charging 500 Leones (10 US cents) for use of toilet.

Ms. Sadoyan says that, “I am hoping that even when UNMEER might have left, they can continue to maintain the toilets and wash their hands.”

“In the past, people used to urinate all over the place and the toilets were filthy. These days, they use clean public toilets and wash their hands afterwards,” maintains Hassan Kamara, an Ebola survivor and also one of the trainees.

As Magazine Cut inhabitants imbibe the culture of hand-washing, they are resolved to hold the line in the Ebola battle. “We are determined to keep Ebola out of our community. That is why we are very grateful to UNMEER for the help we have received,” says Bah.

Watch the photos.